Using poems to develop receptive skills

I like to bring poetry into the classroom because I believe that it is important and motivating for students to work with authentic texts.

I find that poems work well because it is possible to work with a whole text, and sometimes with more than one poem in the same lesson. This can be done successfully at any post-beginner level, so long as the poems are selected with care and with the needs, interests and language level of the students in mind. Through their reading of poetry, students can deepen their understanding of British contemporary culture. I am an English language specialist, not a literature teacher, and you will find that you will easily be able to adapt your favourite reading and listening activities if you want to bring a bit of real emotion and poetry into your classroom.

  • Active listening
  • Active reading
  • Some pros and cons
  • Conclusion


Active listening
It is crucial for students to be able to get a feel for the rhythm and sounds of a poem - more so than for most pieces of prose. This isn't always easy in a second language, and so listening to their teacher read the poem, or to a professional recording, perhaps by the poet or by an actor, is, I feel, essential.

  • As with any listening activity, students will need some kind of preparation and task so that they can be actively engaged. They might be asked to check predictions that arose from a warm-up discussion, to compare their suggested rhyming couplets with the poet's, or to identify stressed words and syllables.
  • You might also want to get your students to listen to recorded or live discussions about poems. This can, for example, take the form of a couple of teachers or a group of students giving their views on a poem, or even an interview with the poet.
  • I'm a big fan of jigsaw listening because of the natural information gap. If your school has the facilities, you might like to;
    • divide your students into two, or even three groups
    • give each group a different cassette or CD and tasks to work on
    • then they come back together to share what they have learned.
  • Remember that your own enthusiasm is a key factor in any activity relating to literature in the classroom.


Finally, don't forget to encourage art for art's sake. Listening for pleasure, to poetry (or to anything else, for that matter), is to be fostered at every opportunity, because of the obvious benefits which include motivation, vocabulary acquisition and learner autonomy. Many good song lyrics could be termed poetry and treated accordingly in the classroom, copyright rules permitting.

Active reading
Reading activities can centre around not only the poems themselves, but also around background reading sources like biography or criticism.

  • Some reading texts might be produced by other students, perhaps based on internet research, if your school has the facilities.
  • Don't get stuck in literary analysis unless your students have specifically asked for a literature lesson, but do draw attention to useful syntax, grammar and vocabulary, and beware of common poetic conventions like inverted word order, ensuring that students are aware that this is a deviation from the norms of everyday English language.
  • Too much analysis can kill enjoyment, and we are aiming for the opposite! As a pre-reading activity, I get the students to predict what they are about to read. With poetry, this can be done with the title as a catalyst, by revealing the lines gradually on an overhead projector, or by looking at the first verse of a longer poem. Refer students back to what they have read in the text so that they are justifying their predictions.
  • You might like to prepare some jigsaw reading exercises too. With shorter poems, this might involve different groups working on different, thematically related, poems, each group having the same set of questions.
  • Exam students might benefit from some discourse analysis: it's easy to make your own cloze exercise with a poem, and of course I always encourage my students to try to deduce the meaning of new vocabulary from the context.
  • More advanced learners might enjoy identifying register and reading between the lines to infer meaning. Once again, exploit the chance to encourage reading for pleasure too.


Some pros and cons
You might need to spend a bit of time finding a poem that links thematically with your scheme of work, and making sure you respect the copyright rules.

  • I have rejected poems that are too long, too archaic or too obscure, or that I can't muster any enthusiasm for or that the students may not respond to. The wrong poem is worse than no poem at all.
  • I find that I need to explain my pedagogical rationale and the aims of activities very clearly, and students who have disliked studying literature in their own language may need extra motivation.
  • I sometimes reassure my students that their other needs, e.g. exam preparation, are being met.
  • It's worth taking the risk and using poems though, because poems can foster a love of English, and they are so versatile.
  • I have used them as warmers or fillers, and as the catalyst for many different activities with students ranging from Pre-intermediate to Proficiency, and with multilevel classes.
  • Students find a poem a welcome, and sometimes inspirational, change from a coursebook. Poems can be involving, motivating and memorable, and they can supplement and enrich just about any lesson.


I've found that poems can be an inspirational basis for, or supplement to, a language lesson where the aim is to develop reading or listening skills. At both lower and higher levels, students can be very excited and proud of themselves for reading and understanding poetry in the original English version and perhaps best of all they start to enjoy a real part of the culture.

Further reading
These are resource books of ideas and activities for using poems in the English language classroom. They contain useful bibliographies of poetry anthologies too.

Literature in the Language Classroom Collie & Slater CUP 1987
Literature Duff & Maley OUP 1990
Teaching Literature Carter & Long Longman 1991

Christina Smart, British Council


Submitted by saschavkv on Thu, 05/31/2012 - 15:22


Comment on “Using poems to develop receptive skills”
By Sascha van Koetsveld

I will start by saying that I agree with the idea that poems should be used to develop receptive skills; they have to be used to fulfill relevant objectives though. Reading poems is great for broadening vocabulary and improving reading skills, and also for improving pronunciation. I will elaborate a bit about the relationship of culture and language in relation to poems. Certain poems have cultural attributes. A poet that incorporates culture in some of her poems is Maya Angelou. In this comment I will discuss the relation between culture and language, and cultural aspects that have to be taken into account found in poems.

Poems and Culture

I think it is a good idea to learn about the culture of the language you are learning, that makes a poem which contains culture appropriate in an English class, since culture is related to language. When learning a language I consider that we should also learn about the cultures belonging to that language. In the case of English: British or American culture. Many aspects fall under culture: humor, proverbs, customs, type of foods, beliefs, etc. A poem I would implement in a class that is loaded with cultural aspects is America by Maya Angelou; I would use this poem for intermediate level of English and for students with general knowledge about the U.S.A. It is great for discussion after listening to it. Teachers can exploit poems such as this to teach culture through listening activities or/and through reading activities.  But, before we do this we have to take into consideration all the cultural aspects that a poem might have. I will mention several of these aspects from the book Literature and Language Teaching of the author Gillian Lazar. The teacher has to decide how explicitly he or she teaches these cultural aspects, it could be taught over several lessons.  Also, games can be played to learn about these cultural aspects. A board game printed in color on a piece of paper, with questions for every space about cultural aspects of the poem could be used with students divided in groups. So, now follow some of the cultural aspects that could be found in poems.

Cultural aspects:

•    Objects or products of one society might not exist in another society.
•    Proverbs and idioms will be different, but there might be proverbs that mean the same thing in different cultures.
•    The teacher has to take social structures, roles and relationships of the culture in the poem into account.
•    Customs, values, festivals, superstitions, taboos.
•    Humor
•   Political/Historic background.

I conclude this response to Christina Smart’s article stating that I believe that indeed poems have a place in the English classroom, alongside plays and short stories and other literary works, when developing receptive skills. However, there are aspects like culture to take into account. Under culture fall many aspects as were already mentioned. The tricky part I see with using poems and other literary works in a language class is applying them to language objectives while trying to exploit them the most we can. Much thought and good planning has to go into selecting poems for the right level of students and there has to be a good purpose for using a poem in an English class. Even though selecting a proper poem may be time-consuming; it is important to find the right poem for your class because what Christina Smart says should be taken into account: the wrong poem is worse than no poem at all.

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